Hello Gill! First of all, I would like to congratulate you on the recent publication of your latest book, Women and Children First. Can you please tell us what it is about?
A: It begins on the Titanic, where I describe events through the eyes of Reg, a steward in the first-class dining saloon, Juliette, an English lady, and Annie, an Irishwoman in third class who is travelling to New York with her four children. They each have very traumatic experiences as the ship sinks and I then follow the ones who survive through the next three months as they try to come to terms with all that’s happened to them. The sinking of the Titanic is, of course, a well-known story but I’ve tried to explore some less well-known angles, such as the experiences of the crew and the symptoms of post-traumatic stress that many survivors suffered.
You previously published Titanic Love Stories, a non-fiction book focusing on thirteen couples aboard the doomed passenger liner. Where did your interest in the sinking of the Titanic stem from?
A: Both my grandfathers worked in shipbuilding but it was when I watched the film A Night to Remember as a teenager that I caught the bug, and I’ve been reading about the Titanic ever since.
How much of Women and Children First is fiction? Writing Titanic Love Stories must have involved a lot of research. Were you able to draw on that while writing your new book or did you have to dig some more in historical records?
A: Great question. I had to do MUCH more research for Women and Children First than Titanic Love Stories. Although my three main characters are invented, their experiences are based on things that actually happened on the ship and I wanted every detail to be authentic because my goal was to imagine what it must have been like for the people who were there. The whole section about the sinking follows eyewitness accounts, minute by minute. Once they are in New York, I made sure that the food, the buildings, the transport system, everything is described as it was in 1912. Writing non-fiction about the Titanic was much easier – but nothing is as rewarding to write as fiction.
If you are already working on your next writing project, would you mind giving us a little anticipation of what we are to expect?
A: It’s set in the 1960s and has a Mad Men vibe. It’s about fame and the early days of the paparazzi and that’s all I can say for now, under publishers’ orders, but it’s due for publication in May 1913.
Due to the popularity of social networking websites, it seems that interacting with readers – be it via a Twitter account, a Facebook page, a blog etc. – is becoming increasingly important. How do you cope with these new demands on authors and do you think that they somehow disrupt your writing schedule?
A: I absolutely love Twitter. It’s great that readers can contact me directly to tell me what they think of my novel while they’re reading it, and I always reply. I try to restrict myself to going on first thing in the morning and last thing in the afternoon, unless I have direct messages to answer, but sometimes temptation strikes and I have a quick peep to see what’s going on. My publisher asked me to write a weekly blog and I managed it for ten weeks but haven’t had time recently as I’ve been doing the publicity rounds. Now, Facebook I’m not good at. I have a page where people can contact me but I don’t update it as much as I should. Must try harder! But none of this disrupts my writing schedule as much as the telephone.
How did your first book deal come about and what one fundamental piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?
A: I was lucky enough to find a very supportive, inspiring creative writing group who helped my confidence a lot. Once the novel was finished, I sent it out to half a dozen agents even though I knew it wasn’t quite working. Vivien Green from Sheil Land called and asked me in for a meeting and she immediately put her finger on the problem with the novel and made a very neat suggestion about how it could be solved, so I had no hesitation in signing up with her – especially when I heard she also represents Rose Tremain, who is one of my favourite authors of all time. I did the revisions, Vivien sent it out to publishers, and when I heard that Hodder had made an offer I had to lie on the carpet for half an hour to calm down. Really, I was incredibly lucky.
My advice for aspiring writers is very basic – just write. Set yourself word count targets and don’t stop till you reach them. Keep writing even when you think it’s not working. Don’t be too critical of your first draft – save that for the second, third and subsequent ones. Just keep putting words down until you reach the end. I have no great advice on getting published but am full of admiration for the people who manage to self-publish and self-market their own books. I’d be terrible at that.
And lastly, is there anything that you would like to share that I haven’t asked?
A: I mentor a few young writers (under the age of twelve) who send me their work for advice, and it’s incredibly rewarding. I love their intrinsic understanding of the way stories work and their incredible imaginations. I just hope it’s still possible to earn a living as an author when they grow up. The way the industry is going doesn’t look terribly promising, but I’m optimistic that new publishing models will emerge that will guide readers to the best novels (blogs like this will become ever-more important in that respect) and allow writers to keep themselves in Pinot Grigio.
Thanks for your time!
A: Thank you! Love the site.
To win a copy of Women and Children First, please fill out this form. The competition will end on the 11th June.